Posted by Chris Becker in Composers, Contemporary Classical, New York, Opera, Performers, Premieres, Women composers, tags: Andrea Liberovici, Apollo Theater, Helga Davis, Jeffrey Zeigler, Mephisto's Songs, multimedia, paola prestini, Robert Wilson, Salon Series
This Friday and Saturday October 22 and 23, Andrea Liberovici’s multimedia work Mephisto’s Songs premieres a part of the Apollo Theater’s Salon Series. I’m not familiar with Liberovici, but I am familiar with Mephisto’s featured performer singer Helga Davis. In addition to Ms. Davis’ amazing vocals, the piece includes recorded narration by Robert Wilson and cello improvisations by The Kronos Quartet’s awesome Jeffrey Zeigler. Live musicians for this performance include Clarice Jenson (cello), Fred Cash Jr. (bass), and Abe Fogle (drums).
Some of you may be familiar with Helga Davis as a host of WQXR’s Overnight Music. She works frequently with composers Paola Prestini and Bernice Johnson Reagon who, in collaboration with Robert Wilson, created the critically acclaimed opera The Temptation of Saint Anthony with Davis singing the role of Hilarion. And some of you truly hip folks may know that she sings on two scores I composed for dance, Like Dirt for Racoco Productions and La Spectra for Movement Pants Dance. Davis is also a distinctive and powerful composer. Her solo shows combining song, spoken word, theater, and video at venues that include New York City’s Whitney Museum or Galapagos are not to be missed.
Check out the Apollo Theater website for ticket information for their Salon Series. An article about another one of Liberovici’s recent projects can be found here.
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Posted by Chris Becker in Brooklyn, Contemporary Classical, Houston, New York, tags: Amy Tan, Apollo Theater, Dance of Asia America, Houston, James Brown, Lou Harrison, Musiqa, Opera, Stewart Wallace, Todd Frazier, Zheng Chao
Mezzo Soprano Zheng Chao
The music season has definitely kicked into gear all across the country. Sure, I will always love and find inspiration via New York City; I just received a great CD from a new friend in Brooklyn and the other night skyped for the first time with another NYC friend and collaborator who helped lead Burnt Sugar in a recent musical tribute to James Brown at the Apollo Theater (Salon Series at the Apollo is looking really, really cool. Miller Theatre, you have been warned…).
But I’m excited by the music new I’m reading from all the coasts (and Midwest). Here’s yet another great concert event taking place in my new home – Houston, Texas.
This Saturday, October 16th, Houston’s contemporary music group Musiqa launches its 9th season with the world premiere of composer Stewart Wallace’s chamber piece for She Told Me This composed for and performed by Mezzo Soprano Zheng Chao with a libretto by Amy Tan. Sara Jobin, Assistant Conductor of the San Francisco Opera, conducts. A native Houstonian, Wallace is best known for his opera Harvey Milk , which premiered in Houston in 1995. Zheng Chao’s recently diagnosed and current battle with lung cancer in part inspired Wallace to compose this piece especially for her. You can read more about Chao and her story here.
Saturday’s program also includes a world premiere dance performance by Dance of Asia America to works by Lei Liang and Lou Harrison as well as two pieces by composers Anthony Brandt and Todd Frazier commissioned for the recent anniversary of Rice University’s Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology.
It all takes place Saturday, October 16th, 2010, at 7:30 p.m. in Zilkha Hall of The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. A pre-concert screening of a film about Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan’s collaboration takes place at 7:00 p.m. You can purchase tickets at www.musiqahouston.org
Posted by Chris Becker in Conductors, Contemporary Classical, Houston, Interviews, Opera, Premieres, tags: Bangkok Opera, Buddha, Houston, India, Opera, Opera Vista, Somtow Sucharitkul, Thailand, The Vista Competition, Viswa Subbaraman
It’s a cliché to say Texans like things BIG although a mid morning drive on Houston’s freeways will do little to dispel this notion. However, many incredible opera companies in Houston presenting cutting edge programming and embracing fresh approaches to audience outreach are relatively small operations. But that doesn’t mean these companies and their ambitions aren’t growing.
Viswa Subbaraman is the Founder and Artistic Director of Opera Vista, Houston’s innovative contemporary opera company. October 15, at 8pm at Zilkha Hall (located in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts) maestro Subbaraman and company present the world premiere of composer and Bangkok Opera artistic director Somtow Sucharitkul’s The Silent Prince. Billed as a “Bollywood Opera,” The Silent Prince tells the Buddhist tale of Temiya Jataka, a Buddha who has been reincarnated as a prince. When forced to choose between committing terrible karmic deeds and disobeying his father, Temiya withdraws from the world into silence.
After visiting Sucharitkul’s website to hear samples of his music and blog to read his first hand accounts of composing and conducting music in Thailand, I reached out to Viswa Subbaraman with a few questions about next Friday’s premiere and the future of opera:
What are the connections between Bollywood and The Silent Prince? Does the Bollywood connection have to do with the production’s staging and choreography as well as the appearance of a live elephant?
The Bollywood connection has primarily to do with the staging, dancing, and costuming. In a lot of ways, I see this as a throwback to to the Bollywood movies I remember watching with my parents. When I was really young, it seemed as though my parents could only find Bollywood movies that had been out for at least 5-10 years. It wasn’t as prevalent to find Bollywood movies in the US back then. Those old movies had a very operatic element to them. I think the Bollywood connection in this opera harks back to that type of Bollywood film.
Musically, the work tends to be a very eclectic piece. There are moments that strike me as being old-school Bollywood. There are also times that I’m reminded of Sondheim, Wagner, Bernstein and a score of other composers. What I find extremely successful is that it does not sound piece meal. There is a definite unity between the various musical styles.
The score for The Silent Prince combines Western and Indian instruments. What Indian instruments are used? Does the score incorporate instruments from other parts of the East as well?
The Indian instruments in Somtow’s score include Tamburas and Harmonium. In the original conception, there were ideas to use Indian percussion and a variety of Indian instruments, but in the end, it seemed as though Somtow pared things down to create a much cleaner texture. One could make the argument, however, that he uses the violins and flute in a very Carnatic way at points. There is a definite South Asian connection in the instrumentation. Somtow uses a number of tam-tams, gongs, and antique cymbals, so there is a “gamelan” influence. Granted, those instruments tend to be so common in the orchestra that we don’t consider them as exotic any more. That being said, there is a definite nod to eastern traditions in the way those instruments are used.
From your perspective as a conductor and director of an opera company, where do you think contemporary and yet-to-be-written opera in the 21st century is headed? Are the costs of production stifling the development of this tradition of music? Or are more and more people like yourself discovering innovative ways to keep this particular genre of music and its audience growing?
This is an interesting question in that these days I see a ton of new opera. Opera Vista runs an annual competition for new opera (The Vista Competition), and since our focus is primarily opera by living composers, we also receive a number of perusal scores. When I started Opera Vista, I was wary of what we would receive in the way of submissions for the competition, and I was also curious to see what the state of new opera was. I can honestly say that we should be excited by all the great opera being written by living composers. I think opera, much like other areas of contemporary composition, is marked by eclecticism. I don’t know that you can say that there is a specific style or direction that marks contemporary opera. We’re seeing every manner of opera under the sun. There seems to be almost no subject area that is taboo. There also doesn’t seem to be a musical style that is necessarily in vogue right now.
Costs of production are probably the biggest hurdle. I have literally hundreds of ideas for new productions of new opera as well as a variety of directions we could go to help composers develop their art. That being said, it is still difficult to convince potential donors of the necessity of donating to support new music. New music still scares people. This is an area that I guess I could write a book about now. I love all types of music, but as Artistic Director of an organization that is still in its infancy, there is no doubt that I have tabled some productions that I think would be amazing to explore – Elliott Carter’s What Next? comes to mind – because I need to develop my audience base as well as their faith that new opera can be interesting and not scary. I really want Opera Vista to develop a consistent donor base and to be able to truly afford its staff and musicians before pushing the envelope too far – although a Bollywood opera with a live elephant really does feel like pushing the envelope! In some ways, that is the beauty of The Vista Competition.
The Vista Competition for new opera has been an amazing way to introduce living composers and their music to audiences. Every year, I have thought that there might be a piece in the mix that is “above the audience,” and to my amazement it does extremely well in the competition. The Vista Competition is run in an American Idol style. We perform 6-10 minute excerpts of the opera to give the audience a flavor of the work. The jury then asks the composers questions about their work, and in the end, the audience votes for the winner. Because of the interaction between the jury and the composers and in the finals directly between the audience and the composers, there is an opportunity for the audience to learn about the piece in fun and hopefully not-so-scary manner. It has been a building process. I’m excited each year by the number of people who return for the competition and bring friends. We are slowly finding a way to overcome the “opera” and “new music” stereotypes that scare people.
I think there are a number of groups that are working towards fostering new opera. It takes time and a ton of effort. It truly is a labor of love initially. It’s an exciting time for new opera. I really believe in the work we are doing. I know there is now the Microscopic Opera Company in Pittsburgh, Bluegrass Opera in Kentucky, and a number of others are growing.
The Silent Prince by Somtow Sucharitkul, performed by Opera Vista, Viswa Subbaraman conducting, will premiere October 15, 2010, 8pm at Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts,
800 Bagby St.,
Posted by Chris Becker in Contemporary Classical, Electro-Acoustic, Experimental Music, Flute, Houston, Improv, Percussion, Performers, Sound Art, Women composers, tags: Avant Garden, Doggebi, Flute, Houston, improvisation, Labotanica, Michelle Yom, sound installation, Women composers
Pyramid and Michelle Yom at Labotanica (Houston, TX)
This Friday, October 1st at 7pm, Michelle Yom will present her sound performance installation Back To Imagined Spaces at Houston’s alternative arts and music venue Labotanica located at 2316 Elgin Street. This is a part of Labotanica’s ongoing Hear/Her/Ear series spotlighting women in experimental music.
I got a chance to hear Michelle last month in a solo vocal set at Avant-Garden where she recorded and looped her singing in real time to additively build a series of haunting chorales. Michelle is perhaps best known as a flautist with a strong classical technique and the skills and imagination of a great improviser. Her flute and drums duo Doggebi features Michelle with drummer Spike The Percussionist – a musician I name checked in my Houston Mixtape #3: The Epicenter Of Noise – freely and (almost) breathlessly improvising music that is somehow stark yet filled with a minutiae of details.
Back To Imagined Spaces imagines the human body as a collection of cells that sing and are heard in a “self-imposed timeless space” contained within the pyramid Michelle has constructed inside Labotanica. Regarding the music she will perform, Michelle writes: “The first set is a series of staccato vocalizations with syllables from the mantra, Asato Ma Sad Gamaya, processed through seven delays. The second set will be a live performance of tonal pieces titled Heart, Ears, Kidney, and Stomach, also using vocal sounds. The pieces are intended to capture a version of imaginary but prudent sounds, much like taking a microscope and focusing the lens into singing, living cells.”
Also on Friday’s program are performances by artist, vocalist and electronic composer Melanie Jamison and Labotanica’s tireless curator, visual and sound artist Ayanna Jolivet McCloud.
There is a $5 cover charge for the show. All proceeds go to the musicians. Michelle Yom’s installation will be up October 1st through October 9th, 2010.
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Joachim Koester, Still from Tarantism, 2007, 16mm black-and-white film installation. Courtesy of Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen, and Greene Naftali, New York.
2010-11 marks Houston based Musiqa’s seventh year of presenting free “loft” concerts at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Each of these informal, intimate concerts is produced in conjunction with a different exhibition.
On Thursday, September 23, 2010, at 6:30 p.m., in conjunction with the museum’s exhibit Dance with Camera, Musiqa presents a collaborative “loft” concert with video artists BeJohnny that will merge live music and video. The Thursday program includes Alvin Lucier’s Queen of the South and Frederic Rzewski’s To the Earth, featuring Craig Hauschildt and Luke Hubley on percussion.
I wrote about Musiqa and their May 2010 Hand + Made concert in my first Houston Mixtape for Sequenza 21. Musiqa percussionist Craig Hauschildt’s solo performance of Vinko Globokar’s primal piece of performance art Corporal was one of the highlights of that program, and I can’t wait to see what he and the rest of the ensemble have cooked up for this Thursday’s concert.
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Posted by Chris Becker in Contemporary Classical, Houston, Mix Tape, tags: Da Camera, experimental, Feldman, Houston, Houston Chamber Choir, Kaboom Books, Menil, New Orleans, Rothko, sound installation
What Not With Skyline (photo by Chris Becker)
As a recent transplant to Houston, I am just beginning to take in the breadth and variety of the city’s cultural scene, especially its music. Each article will focus on contemporary composition, improvised idioms, and performances that integrate theater, visual arts, and/or dance. Inevitably, my love for rock, folk, blues, jazz, country, zydeco, and all out noise will creep into future writing. The goal is to expand people’s perceptions (including my own) about how and where one can find innovative music.
Last Month (August) I visited Kaboom Books for the first time and in addition to buying a few great used books including a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Shadow and Act with its wonderful essay about Charlie Christian, I met and spoke at length with one of the owners about Kaboom’s former home New Orleans. For this summer’s White Linen Night, Houston sound artist Doren Bernard turned Kaboom Books into a sound installation with a mysterious piece of entirely comprised of sounds recorded within the store. As I moved through the aisles of Kaboom that night, Doren’s piece seemed to sit at the edges of my peripheral hearing creating an effect similar to seeing a ghost and then – after blinking your eyes – seeing nothing but the space where your spectre had made its presence known.
A friend from New York asked me for a little more detail regarding my comparisons in last month’s Houston Mixtape #3: The Epicenter Of Noise between his city and Houston and each town’s respective “noise” level. He rightly pointed out that Houston, being more spread out with little or no zoning regulations, results in a more horizontal (as opposed to vertical) cityscape thereby diffusing and spreading out the noise of the city.
Horizontal also means you get to see wide-open skies and gigantic cloud formations from an uncluttered 360-degree perspective.
Clouds Over Tommie Vaughn (photo by Chris Becker)
Maybe this is a stretch, but I do wonder if Houston’s big skies and flat lands inspired the artist Mark Rothko directly or indirectly while creating the fourteen paintings contained in the Rothko Chapel. I do know Rothko worked closely with Philip Johnson and Houston architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry in designing the sunlit chapel that would contain his fourteen paintings, and there’s no question in my mind that sunlight played a role in the planning and construction of the chapel. On a recent visit to the chapel (which is located in Houston’s Museum District), I was struck at how dramatically Rothko’s paintings transform in appearance as the light from the chapel skylight shifts in relation to cloud cover and Houston’s crazy weather patterns. These changes occur almost minute-to-minute, and the paintings transcend their frames, colors, and textures.
It makes absolute sense then that composer Morton Feldman was asked by John and Dominique de Menil to compose a tribute to Rothko. In his essay regarding the resulting work Rothko Chapel , Feldman writes that his choice of instruments was affected by the space of the chapel as well as by Rothko’s paintings and that he wanted the music to “permeate the whole octagonal-shaped room” just as the paintings seem to continue beyond the borders of their canvases. It’s a ways ahead, but on February 11, 2011, the Houston Chamber Choir and Da Camera of Houston will present Feldman’s Rothko Chapel as well as works by John Cage and Erik Satie in the Rothko Chapel to celebrate its 40th anniversary.
On September 21st, 7:30 pm at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, you can hear a performance of Thomas Tallis‘ 40 part motet Spem in Alium by the Houston Chamber Choir. This is another piece of music that permeates “the whole” of any space it is heard.
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Trills Flavia. (Music and Film by Jonathan Jindra. Dancer: Paola Georgudis.
Girl in TV: Valentina Canastaro.
Assisted by: Simon Pena)
Jonathan Jindra’s weekly experimental music concerts Binarium Sound Series continues 8pm Sunday nights here in Houston, Texas at The Mekong Underground, 2808 Milan Street (right next to Kohn’s bar). This is a wonderful series where you will hear intimate performances by local and visiting artists performing composed, improvised, electronic, and acoustic experimental music.
This Sunday’s August 29th Binarium program features Jonathan’s electronica project Trills. Trills is manifested in Jonathan’s live performances as well as several online digital releases – many being collaborations with other similarly minded artists. His recent full length split with Glasgow artist Dissolved entitled PH:14 has been his most successful release to date with over 43,000 downloads in its first month of release. Trills’ repertoire to my ears is rooted in the music of groundbreaking electronic artists like Tangerine Dream, Vangelis (especially his soundtrack to Bladerunner) and Popol Vuh.But Jonathan has name checked for me a handful of more contemporary artists as influences, including Boards of Canada, Pan Sonic, and Autechre.
I’ve listened to a bunch of Jonathan’s music and still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of his talents and repertoire. And I don’t want to pigeonhole Trills with only a cursory familiarity of countless 21st century electronic artists that flood the web trading digital files of original groundbreaking music the way I traded cassette tapes of the same back in the day. The best thing to do is go to the Trills website and enjoy the music and video samples, and then forget what you’ve heard when you check out this Sunday’s show. Jonathan’s set will be accompanied by custom video projection. About This Product joins Trills on this bill.
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Outside the Eldorado Ballroom, Houston, TX (Photo by Chris Becker)
“ …(Houston is) one of the epicenters of noise bands and experimental music. Nobody even knows that, you know? ” Dan Workman of Houston’s Sugarhill Studios.
Here’s an excerpt of a recording I made of a Houston thunderstorm using a Zoom H4 recorder positioned just behind the front screen door to our house. You might want to turn down the volume about half way through if you listen to this headphones:
Houston rain and thunder
New York City – the city where I lived for twelve years before relocating to Houston, Texas – is LOUD. In my mind’s ear, I can STILL hear the car horns, the jackhammers, the fire truck sirens (we lived one block away from a fire station), the garbage trucks flipping over dumpsters filled with glass and concrete (BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!) and…the subways. Oh Lord, the SUBWAYS! Two musician friends of mine wore earplugs every time they traveled underground. My wife ALWAYS covered her ears when the trains screeched to a halt at the platforms. Loudspeakers in the stations and on the trains intermittently blared out jaunty yet nearly incomprehensible warnings about rerouted trains and “suspicious packages.” (Remember…if you SEE something, SAY something!) And microphone feedback? The MTA’s gotcha covered.
Quick! Without thinking, imitate a New Yorker! You started YELLING, right?
So being a sensitive composer with sensitive ears, the first thing I noticed about Houston once we’d moved down here is how much quieter it is compared to New York City. And what tweaked my ears my first few weeks on the ground wasn’t the omnipresent hum of the Interstate 610 loop. It was the unpredictable antiphonal chatter of Houston’s bird population. The screeches and cooing were so intriguing to me, I spent the first couple months in our new city composing a piece of “musique concrete” utilizing several recordings I’d made of the birds in our front and back yards. There is a truly rural almost wild (as in wilderness) vibe to the city outside of downtown and the aforementioned beltways.
How did a city that to my ears is so much quieter than NYC come to be known as an “epicenter of noise”? Make no mistake, some of the Houston noise artists I’ve checked out make Nine Inch Nails sound like Sting. But one thing the Houston musicians I’ve reached out to regarding the “noise” scene agree on is that one person’s “noise” is another’s poetry. The hierarchal notion that a note from a clarinet somehow contains more emotional profundity than the sound of a hammer hitting a nail doesn’t really exist in the minds of (most) 21st century musicians (One of my “non-noise” composer friends pointed out that noise just like “music” can “evoke a wide range of sentiment”). But my research yielded so MANY Texas musicians either explicitly flying the “noise” flag (Concrete Violin, Spike The Percussionist, Richard Ramirez) or so loosely attached to however one might define “noise” (the grime meets speed metal music of B L A C K I E is one such example) that I wondered who or what exactly I could write about in this dispatch.
It occurs to me that one of my favorite recordings, “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground,” was created by a Texan (Blind Willie Johnson in case you didn’t know). The timbre Johnson’s vocal lies somewhere between a whisper and a scream while his phrasing conveys a feeling of both defiance and resignation. Consider the title Johnson gave to this recording. Has the uniquely Southwestern connection to the earth – the dirt that we all will return to one day – disappeared in the years since the 1920’s when Johnson tracked his performance? I don’t think so. And in the noise of that recording (the slide on the guitar strings…the rumble of the grooves of the record itself…) is there some precedent for the Dadist freak outs of Houston ’s Red Krayola? Or the electric jug playing of the 13th Floor Elevators? Or the stinging strings of Lightning Hopkins, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, or Little Joe Washington?
Perhaps “noise” – that succinct descriptive noun – is actually in practice a portal to a sensory experience that isn’t so easy to describe but one we immediately feel and understand. To quote Morton Feldman: “…these moments when one loses control…and with a thrust there is no sound, no tone…nothing left but the significance of our first breath.”
Like rain and thunder. Or “cicadas making noise…” Or the crazy Houston doves that carry on their pygmy like conversations from the trees around my house from sun up to sun down.
Alexandra Marculewicz Adshead at Labotanica (Photo by Chris Becker)
Houston’s gallery and performance space Labotanica is currently hosting a monthly concert series called hereherhear that features women in experimental music. The first concert in June included artists from Houston, Baltimore, and New York. Last Friday, I attended July’s hereherhear concert event featuring the collective Pear Prickley Pear, vocalist/ composer Alexandra Marculewicz Adshead, and DJ/Electronic artist Khrystah Gorham. On display at Labotanica was Yet Torres’ mixed media installation EYE-CANDY DELECTABLY which explores objectification and the body via Torres’ own mysterious, grotesque, and at times humorous iconography. Plenty of people turned up for the concert, and I was happy to see that at a little after 7pm the performers would be playing to a full house.
Earlier in July, Alexandra invited members of the Houston community to email her mp3s of samples that she might incorporate into her performance at Labotanica. I responded with my front and back yard bird piece and was delighted when Alexandra contacted me to say that she would indeed use it for her upcoming gig. Samples from Pear Prickley Pear and composer Steve Layton would also become a part of Alexandra’s show.
Alexandra’s recorded works blend composed structures with improvised sometimes heavily processed vocals that at times is character driven or seemingly inspired by the sounds of nature, animals, and even her one-year old daughter. What struck me when I first listened to her music online was the sound of her voice – her tone and the emotive quality it contained. A voice sometimes jumps out at you in that way.
In performance, Alexandra utilized the laptop computer to play back the composed structures of her works while processing her live vocals through a variety of unpredictable effects. In one piece, she told the story of a woman’s descent into madness with a delivery that initially sounded as if she were reading a slightly unnerving bedtime story until flange and delay transformed her spoken words into the sound of the voice you hear when your frontal lobe isn’t functioning. Her closing piece did indeed incorporate my bird (noise?) piece into multidimensional landscape where slowly looping chorale-like vocals rose to several crescendos before morphing dramatically into a texture that included percussive effects and (more) bird song from Layton. The whole set was a thoughtful and engaging blend of techniques and technologies.
I wonder if “noise” as Houston has come to know it is due for yet another wave of creative development. For a movement that is by nature very “underground” – much of Houston’s experimental artists are well documented thanks to the Internet and what I believe is a very Texan impulse to preserve history (and share some good stories) in words both written and sung. Or screamed. Houston is a comfortable and nurturing place for experimental artists. And there are probably many reasons for that fact that I have yet to sort out.
(Special thanks to Joseph Benzola, Douglas Henderson, Mark Kemp, Daniel Salazar, Ryan Supak, John Stone, Yet Torres, and Michael Vincent Waller for their sharing with me their thoughts on noise.)
Photo of The Ink Spots Museum by Chris Becker
Being a recent transplant to Houston, Texas, I am only just beginning to take in the breadth and variety of the city’s cultural scene– especially its music. Each dispatch I bring to you from Houston will focus on contemporary composition, improvised idioms, and performances that integrate theatre, the visual arts, and/or dance. Inevitably, my love for rock, folk, blues, jazz, country, zydeco, and all out noise will creep into future writing, the overall goal being to expand peoples’ perception (including my own) of where one can find innovative forward-thinking music.
There may be a connection between Houston’s (lack of) zoning laws and the way that the past, present, and future inform each other throughout its landscape. Maybe that sounds like a cliche. But, if you’ve ever ridden the Houston’s Metro 80 bus through the Third Ward up Dowling Street, past Emancipation Park, and – just before turning left at Sparkle’s Burger Spot toward the glass cathedrals of downtown – observed an unfenced horse enjoying some grass in someone’s front yard, you know that I’m not talking some tourist board hogwash. There are many “zones” throughout this city dedicated to celebrating its history and nurturing its creative spirit. And they sometimes seem to appear out of nowhere.
The Ink Spots Museum (located in Houston Heights) is dedicated to archiving and celebrating the life and work of Texas born guitarist, singer, and educator Huey Long. The museum’s curator Anita Long (Huey’s daughter) welcomed my wife and I for a visit earlier this month and like many Houstonians I’ve met since our relocation from New York City, she was generous with her knowledge of Houston’s cultural scene. Every musician I know would take great comfort in knowing that a family member like Anita would take care of their legacy after they were gone. The museum and its accompanying website (featuring plenty of photos, audio, and video) serves to remind people that the history of American music includes the collective participation of many, many artists each committed to their respective craft. Which is one way of saying you might know that Huey Long was a member of The Ink Spots (from 1944 to 1946 with Bill Kenny as their leader), but not know he also played guitar in ensembles that included Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Father Hines, Sarah Vaughn, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and many other luminaries of 20th century jazz and popular music.
Huey Long (who lived to be 105!) was born in 1904 in Sealy, Texas. For the people in Sealy as well as on the farms in surrounding areas, music was a vital part of a day-to-day dominated by hard labor (by the time he was a teenager, Huey was working as a sharecropper). Describing those formative years in Sealy in his pictorial autobiography The Huey Long Story, Huey recalls the names of no less than four different pianists (including his brother Sammy) playing “rags” on the pianos in people’s homes. “Ragtime” was indeed heard in Texas in the early 1900s as was what would become known as “the blues.” Huey’s sister Willie – also a pianist -studied music in Houston, at Wiley College, and brought back to Sealy classical and popular sheet music to play note for note when “grown ups” were in the house and improvise off of when the youngsters were on their own (some parents considered improvisation to be almost sinful behavior).
In addition to classical, popular, and ragtime music for piano, Huey was exposed to the up-tempo groove oriented music (my description) played on guitar at all night “suppers” (which included plenty of dancing, eating, and gambling) as well as its more somber and “sorrowful” counterpart known as “slow blues.” Huey began playing both guitar and piano, eventually moving to ukulele – a very popular instrument at the time. After setting out on his own at the age of fifteen and relocating in Houston, he began playing banjo (tuning it like a ukulele but an octave lower) and joined the Frank Davis Louisiana Jazz Band. This was a popular and well-respected band in its time, that played for both whites and blacks in Houston’s segregated communities. He would begin playing guitar after relocating from Houston to Chicago and joining Texas Guinan’s Cuban Band (who traveled to Chicago from New York City to play the 1933 World’s Fair). Later, Huey would join Fletcher Henderson’s Band and Earl “Father” Hines’ All Star Band (I apologize for skipping ahead a bit, and neglecting a lot of formative music making…)
Fast forwarding a bit…
Two sessions Huey did around 1946 with trumpeter Fats Navarro, tenor saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, pianist Al Haig, bassist Gene Ramey, and drummer Denzil Best were released on two separate records: In The Beginning…Bebop (which is a compilation of sessions by three different bands) and of Fats Navarro’s recording Nostalgia. These recordings feature some truly kick ass guitar playing from Huey who definitely holds his own in the company of two phenomenally creative horn players. The rhythmic interplay between guitar and piano (and bass and drums…) is incredibly funky. This is bebop (probably) inspired by the music heard at Sealy’s all night suppers: Danceable, unpredictable, and filled with sly humor.
- Huey Long in 2008 (photo courtesy of Anita Long)
Teaching and composing music – including several chord melody solos based on themes from European Classical repertoire – would be a major part of Huey’s life along with researching his family tree creating an exhibit of his life’s work that would become The Ink Spots Museum. Anita talked to us about the possibility of the museum one day becoming a virtual exhibit – and there is plenty of history and music from Huey’s life as well as from Texas that should be shared with the world. For now, in addition to the website, there is this small museum – a standing structure in the midst of Houston’s un-zoned landscape – that you can make an appointment to visit.
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